President Donald Trump may think Jeff Sessions is not a “real attorney general,” but the former Alabama senator is quietly molding the Justice Department into an agency that uses the law as a weapon against minorities, immigrants and fair elections.
For all his tough talk on Twitter, Trump will never shame Jefferson Beauregard Sessions into resigning because while the president distracts the nation and the media with his outrage-a-day tweet strategy, Sessions, flying under the radar, is doing exactly what he came to Washington to do.
Since taking office, Sessions has installed a punitive agenda based on the “Massive Resistance” strategy followed by attorneys general throughout the Deep South during the segregation era to use the law to thwart justice. The aim then was to hobble the civil rights movement, limit the number of black elected officials and impose sentencing guidelines that fell most harshly on black lawbreakers and white citizens guilty of so-called lifestyle “crimes” like recreational drug use and “deviant” sexual behavior. This, of course, is the same legal agenda now being pursued ferociously by Sessions. Far from being “missing in action” as Trump claims, the much-ridiculed Sessions is bent on a root-and-branch revision of federal law enforcement.
Whether acting as a federal prosecutor, Alabama attorney general, United States senator or the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Sessions has always brought an Old Testament zeal to his war on drugs. His sweeping order to force federal prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for drug trafficking, imposed in 2017, was a moment of personal triumph and cemented his reputation as perhaps Alabama’s most popular native-born public official since George Wallace. Sessions, though not of Wallace’s party, seems to thrive on being underestimated as a drawling bumpkin providing a transient period of harmless entertainment.
But with the Congressional elections less than three months away, Sessions’ dismantling of the Justice Department’s historic role as the guardian of minority voters could limit Democratic attempts to reel in a Congress and president run amok. As the industrious New York Times reporter Michael Wines demonstrated in a recent front-page story, Sessions has given Republican opponents of the 1965 Voting Rights Act almost total victory. These conservatives have quietly waged a persistent legal and political campaign to protect their party from black voters angry over Trump’s racist remarks and his perceived coddling of white supremacists.
In only 18 months, according to Wines, Sessions has completely reversed the voter-protection policies of President Barack Obama’s Justice Department — some of which have been in place since 1965. Its attorneys now side with the same Republican state officials whose voter suppression schemes they once opposed in court. “Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” Wines wrote, “the department has filed legal briefs in support of states that are resisting court orders to rein in voter ID requirements, stop aggressive purges of voter rolls and redraw political boundaries that have unfairly diluted minority voting power — all practices that were opposed under President Obama’s attorneys general.”
Almost as an aside, Sessions also has sought to prosecute providers of medical marijuana and defended the separation of Central American families seeking to enter the U.S. illegally — with a Bible verse, no less. Speaking before conservative audiences, he has happily joked about a policy that essentially put babies in cages and echoed conservative high schoolers chants about jailing Hillary Clinton. By national standards, Sessions may look like the laughable elf depicted on Saturday Night Live, but he is, in fact, a dangerous advocate for an outdated political culture that looks to the law as a means of controlling people who look and think differently.
Although Trump now despises him for the sole courageous act of his political career, the two men have more in common than they care to admit. Just as Trump announced that “modern” presidents don’t have to be polite, Jeff Sessions, a Bible-thumper of note, ignored the governing body of his Methodist church when they told him that his immigration enforcement violated Christian principles.
But where Trump seems to take his cues from nobody but himself, Sessions is much more clearly a throwback. George Wallace biographer Dan T. Carter wrote in “The Politics of Rage” that Wallace sponsored legislation frankly designed “to criminalize opposition to segregation.” Its tools included arresting civil rights protesters for “loitering” or “trespass” so that segregation laws could not tested in Federal court. State investigators on the “anti-subversion squads” were sent to interview the parents of black applicants to the University of Alabama.
Sessions’ connection to this living tradition of punitive law enforcement is well documented. As an U.S. attorney, he selectively prosecuted black elected officials in the Alabama Black Belt for voter fraud. Later, as Alabama attorney general, he opposed the funding of gay and lesbian student associations as a threat to his state’s sodomy laws. While his alma mater, the University of Alabama Law School, did produce some white civil rights champions like federal Judge Frank M. Johnson and former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, it mainly schooled the lawyer-politicians who ordered poll taxes and phony literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. This latter tradition seems to have shaped Sessions’ thinking; witness his abolition earlier this year of the Justice Department's Office for Access to Justice, devoted to equal justice for persons in need. The once energetic Civil Rights Division now labors under what the Atlantic Magazine calls the Sessions Doctrine, which aims to “erase many of the legal gains of modern America's defining movement.”
This is the Jeff Sessions story writ short. He has made Alabama’s tradition of weaponizing the legal system against minorities, immigrants and political opponents into the official policy of the United States Justice Department and its legal and prosecutorial agencies. And a nation transfixed by presidential misdirection seems hardly to have noticed.
Howell Raines was executive editor of The New York Times from 2001-2003, editorial page editor from 1993-2001, and prior to that Washington editor, national political correspondent and London bureau chief. Raines won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1993. He currently lives in Fairhope, Alabama, in the winter and spends his summers in Henryville, Pennsylvania.